by Emily Lind Baker
Of the many Forest Hills neighbors who are professionally distinguished, there are some whose outside activities may be even more fascinating. Adam Sieminski, an energy economist, is the administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
He is also passionate about old mills. A former president of the Friends of Peirce Mill, he was instrumental in its restoration over the last few years. The mill, located at Beach Drive and Tilden Street, NW, is the only remaining example of the eight or so grain mills that once flourished along Rock Creek in what is now the District of Columbia.
What first attracted Adam to old mills – their engineering, their history, an interest in historic preservation? Probably all of the above, he says, but “ever since I was a kid I’ve been interested in anything that has gears.” Engineering runs in his family: his father was a mechanical engineer, Adam trained as a civil engineer, and his daughter is an industrial engineer. A visit to Cable Mill in the Great Smokies deepened his interest and since then he has visited old mills all over the world.
He first visited Peirce Mill in the 1970s and bought flour there. When Adam and his wife, Laurie, a noted quilter, travel together, they “have a deal: I stop for craft shops and she stops for mills.”
Adam is a fount of knowledge about the history of old mills and how they work. He is presently taking classes that will earn him a miller’s certificate from the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills. As we looked at the huge millstones, Adam explained, “when you grind [grain] you’re not really grinding, you’re milling,” cutting the grain into fine pieces. “The purpose of the gears is basically to get the [mill]stones to go as fast as they can.” The kind of gearing seen at Peirce Mill goes back four to five hundred years.
From the 1820s till the 1890s, local farmers would bring their wheat or corn to Peirce Mill. The mills that operated along Rock Creek were spaced about 18 miles apart to accommodate the distance a farmer could drive a wagonload of grain. With the development of newer milling technology and the spread of grain farming in the Western states, our local mills could no longer compete. By 1900, the Mill and its land were incorporated into Rock Creek Park and came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
From 1904 to 1935, the mill was transformed into a popular tearoom. Harold Ickes, FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, thought the mill was a beautiful building, Adam says, and helped channel WPA funds to restore the mill to operation. For some years it produced flour for federal government cafeterias. Another restoration took place in the 1960s.
In 1993, the milling equipment suffered another breakdown and the Friends of Peirce Mill was formed. By 2010, with the funds raised by the Friends and stimulus money from the National Park Service, major restoration began. The mill reopened to the public in the fall of 2011. Among the many improvements are new, stronger beams and a heating system that allows the National Park Service to provide programs for schools through the winter.
The restoration of the grounds is continuing, following a plan to recreate as much as possible the appearance they would have had in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The slope has been regraded and an orchard is being planted. One thing that cannot be replicated is the millrace that used to bring the water from Rock Creek to the mill. It is too dangerous to have an open millrace in the park, as readers of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss well know. Today, the water comes to the mill wheel underground, its course marked by stones on the surface.
The original millrace started at a dam further up Rock Creek than the present one. The existing dam was built during the tearoom phase in the early 20th century to give visitors a pleasant view.
There are three restored grain mills in the Washington area: Peirce Mill, Colvin Run Mill, and George Washington’s gristmill at Mt. Vernon. The other two mills sell their flour. Adam says that the Friends of Peirce Mill and the National Park Service are hopeful that our Forest Hills mill will be able to produce flour for the public in the future.
The vision of the Friends of Peirce Mill is to “revive Peirce Mill as a living exhibit of water-powered milling and a view on 19th century industry in the Washington D.C. area.” There is much more information at their web site, www.peircemill-friends.org, and from the National Park Service. The Friends are affiliated with SPOOM, the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills. You can find out more about mills around the U.S. and in Canada by going to www.spoom.org.
In addition to his old mill lore, Adam knows a lot about the history of his part of Forest Hills. He and Laurie have lived here for more than twenty years in a house built in 1926. When they moved in, one of their neighbors was still living in the house his parents had bought new in the 1920s. They were physicists at the National Bureau of Standards, which was located where Intelsat and the Embassy complex are now.
The neighbor told them how the stretch of Brandywine Street east of Connecticut Avenue did not go through to the avenue originally. The two blocks between 30th Street and Connecticut were blasted through the hill, which explains why the street looks so different there. Stone from the cut was then used in building some of the houses and retaining walls along Brandywine. If you see glistening stone blocks, the likelihood is that they came from that excavation.
Adam and Laurie particularly enjoy the garden they have developed over the years behind their house, which includes a stream that Adam built with the help of his children. Perhaps his next project will be to build a water mill in the garden.